Fly the coop
Riding along a bumpy country road in Namyangju, the fresh air was quickly invaded by a subtle stench as the van turned a corner to reveal hundreds of chickens pecking about in their coops. I had arrived at Hansol Farm with a group of people participating in a weekend day trip for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. As a first-time volunteer, I was excited to be out of the city and eager to learn more about organic farming.
Kota Fukuyama, who has been working as the manager of WWOOF Korea for the past three years, says the program offers participants the chance to experience the lives and work of farmers and local people while supporting them by lending a helping hand.
“The rest is up to you. If you are interested in organic farming, you can learn from working and talking with farmers. If you want to learn about the local way of cooking, you can go to their kitchen and learn by helping them. It is also a great opportunity to learn the language the hosts speak,” Fukuyama says. “All these elements are real, down-to-earth cultural experiences, and the concept of ‘exchange’ makes it happen. … It’s about learning about life through working and living with people with different backgrounds.”
Although few people who join the program have previous farming experience, the program is organized in a way that allows those new to farm work to still be useful. Fukuyama says that the tedious work of growing various commodity crops on organic farms means that help is always needed, and because most small-scale organic farms do not use the same machinery as large-scale farms, the tasks for volunteers are easier and safer.
> WWOOF fever
WWOOF was created in England in 1971 as a way to bring people and farmers closer together, and has since expanded to over 100 countries worldwide. Korea joined the movement in 1997 and there are now 62 farms registered with the program around the peninsula. With around 400 new members every year; Fukuyama hopes this number will soon double.
One thing he feels sets WWOOFing in Korea apart is the variety in the types of host locations on offer, which ranges from temples and salt farms to farmers who own small restaurants.
People who volunteer for the program exchange their labor for room and board at a participating farm and pay a membership fee of 50,000 won per year. Each farm grows different crops, and before a stay is arranged, the volunteer and host agree on a work schedule. After the workday is over, many hosts will take volunteers around the area or otherwise help them explore.
Most WWOOFers stay for at least a week, but for those who can’t take that much time away there is Group WWOOF. This program offers day and weekend trips, and was started to make WWOOFing more accessible to busy volunteers while helping host farms amass a larger labor force for major tasks during busy seasons. Fukuyama says that there are plans to expand the program, including a version of Group WWOOF for businesses.
“WWOOF participants always say they don’t have many opportunities to see how their food is grown,” he says. “These programs play a big role in bridging the gap between consumers and producers.”
For younger farming enthusiasts, WWOOF Korea created a new group called Kids Farming Travel, which is similar to the WWOOF Youth Camp for kids from ages 9 to 15 that started in Canada and Australia last year.
There are also programs for those who want to support the organic farming community without actually getting their hands dirty. The WWOOF CSA program has organized a weekly delivery of organic foods. The WWOOF Korea Guesthouse, where the main WWOOF Korea office is located, offers lodging in a beautiful hanok (traditional Korean house) and supports organic farmers by providing locally made organic foods.
> Shake a tail feather
Kim Byung-soo, our host farmer, had three tasks for our group of roughly 20 volunteers: shoveling gravel, washing eggs and building new chicken coops.
Hansol farm specializes in strawberries and chickens, among other crops, and I wanted to try helping with the eggs. The first batch of eggs had already been picked in the morning but we were told that picking up the second batch would be our last job of the day. In between, it was our job to wash and package the eggs. Kim’s wife gave us aprons and gloves and showed us how to carefully scrub away the dirt and feathers before packing the eggs into cartons. Soon, it was time for lunch — fresh eggs, rice and vegetables prepared by Kim’s wife using produce grown on the farm.
Gathered around the table were volunteers from many countries, including Korea, Japan, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic — and most had participated in the program in other countries. We all communicated in English, which seems to be the lingua franca of the WWOOF community in Korea.
“Even the most rural of farmers either speak broken English or are in possession of an English-Korean dictionary,” says Jason Parker, an avid WWOOFer from the United States “It really has no bearing on how positive or negative a WWOOFing experience will be.”
Parker, who has participated in the program in five countries over the past decade, says that for him, one of the benefits of doing a long-term homestay through the program is the ability “to immerse yourself in the local culture and experience the ‘real’ Korea, rather than doing the cursory one-week tour of all the top tourist spots in the country and then flying back home.”
Getting to know the local culture is a definite benefit, but there is another one as well. “On the limited budget that I am on, if I were not provided with meals and homestay accommodation, I would not be able to travel in Korea for three months,” he said. “In fact, I would most likely be bankrupt within a few weeks if I were forced to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants every day.”
After finishing the meal, it was back to work. This time I helped build hen houses. First, netting had to be put up around the fences so the chickens wouldn’t fly out. Then, Kim brought wooden materials to build nesting boxes for hens to lay eggs in. Working as a team, we were able to build a few before egg-picking time had come around. Next, I was given a stack of cartons and told to shoo the chickens out of the nest before carefully collecting the freshly laid eggs. Parker told me that the eggs on Hansol Farm are special in Korea because they are fertilized. Some people even believe them to be an aphrodisiac because they are “full of life.” I was shocked and intrigued, and had a fun new fact to share.
When everything was finished, Kim invited us to sit and enjoy some freshly cooked pajeon, a Korean-style crepe that in this case was filled with vegetables from the farm. As we ate, we talked about what led each of us to participate. For some, joining was a way to get involved in farming; for others it was a way to experience a new culture or rediscover their own. For me, it was a way to reconnect with and learn about the land. The day had been long and eventful, but as we said our goodbyes I hoped to return again soon. I climbed into the van with my new group of friends, and as we drove along, the lingering smell of the chicken coops followed us down that bumpy country road.